A reader has been advised by her doctor to use products for sensitive skin following an episode of folliculitis under the arm. What should she look out for, she asks.It’s a trickier question to answer than you might think. Sensitive skin comes in several forms. Sometimes it is simply thin. Or to put it more precisely has a bit less of a barrier function than normal skin. If you suffer from this you are going to find that things like washes and even plain soap might be very drying. Another form of sensitive skin is the kind that reacts to lots of things. This is most likely an overactive immune system that reacts more strongly than desirable to things it comes into contact with.
But this particular case is another one again. Folliculitis is an inflammation of the follicles, or pores as most people call them. This is quite common, though usually it is pretty transitory as well. The causes of it are a bit more obscure. I get it myself from time to time, on my neck and my face in areas where I shave. I think the reason is that where I shave too closely I damage the skin below the surface. When the skin repairs itself it blocks the pores a bit and they become inflammed because the sebum they should be releasing can’t get out as quickly as it should.
So what products are likely to make this worse? On the whole anything with a high oil content is going to be a risk. So steer clear of anything that has an oily feel to it. Run a mile from something like E45 that has a barrier building function. People often advise avoiding products with fragrances. This sounds perfectly logical since fragrances do contain ingredients that on paper look as if they ought to provoke allergies. Some dermatologists have been quite vocal in criticising fragrances as causing allergic reactions. But I have to say that I have never seen the slightest evidence in actual customer complaints that I have received that highly fragranced formulations have any more tendency to give skin reactions than ones with lower levels or none at all. But fragrances aren’t going to make any product work better, so there is no harm in avoiding them if you want to be careful.
Ingredient lists aren’t hugely helpful for this kind of problem. Unless you have had a patch test done you are unlikely to know if you have a specific reaction to a specific material. And I suspect that most people’s skin reactions are a bit more complicated than a simple reaction to a particular ingredient in any case. A couple of ingredients that do seem to bring a lot of people out are potassium sorbate, sorbic acid, sodium benzoate and benzoic acid. Almost nobody reacts to the parabens, though since they have become controversial I have heard people who claim to be sensitive to them.
If you need to use an antiperspirant it might be a good idea to look for one that contains triclosan. This is handy because it is both antibacterial and mildly anti-inflammatory. I don’t really approve of the use of triclosan because of its impact on the environment and because I think it should be reserved for more important uses. But it is safe and legal and until it is banned everybody else is using it so why should you be a martyr. Rexona do a good one, though it is supposedly for men.
But based on my personal experience and a bit of understanding of the way the skin works, the advice I would be most inclined to give is to simply use as little of anything as you can get away with. Your skin is most likely to heal most quickly if you simply leave it to itself.